Monday, May 24, 2010

Other People's Writing

In my first blog post, I wrote about a fiction writing class that I took in college. Everyone (including me) praised this one student's story, and it really was pretty good. But a few months later, I read a book by a popular author, and one of the scenes in that book was very similar to that student's story. A few of the details had been changed, but there were way too many similarities for it to be a coincidence.

In college I read an issue of the school literary magazine and found a short story with a passage in it that was very similar to a passage from a famous book that had been published several decades ago; it actually had the same phrasing.

I know that as writers it's natural to be influenced by other writers. But where do you draw the line between being influenced by someone else and admiring that person's work to actually using that person's writing?

Last Saturday I participated in an online discussion forum. The main question in the forum was, "When life gives you lemons, what do you do?" I posted this response: "Re-gift them to someone else."

But then someone else posted a reply to my response, saying that she thought it was funny and that she was going to use it as her blog slogan. I know that she didn't mean any harm. I know that she just liked the line and wanted to use it in her blog; it was a compliment, right?

The truth is, it bothered me. It's one thing if she was going to post my line and attribute the quote to me; it's another thing if other people think that she came up with it. I imagined myself huddled over my laptop and clutching my notebooks, snapping my teeth at anyone who dared to come near me as I snarled, "These are MY words! Mine! And if I can't entertain people with my writing, NO ONE can! Bwah-hahahahaha!"

So I sent a note to that person who wanted to use my line as her blog slogan. I was polite about it; I just said that I wanted to use the line in my blog. And she was very nice and gracious about it. She said that since I came up with the line that I had the right to it. So it wasn't anything too dramatic. And I'm sure she didn't mean anything bad by wanting to use my line in the first place.

I've been checking out other blogs, and I've noticed that a few people posted short messages on their blogs; they make statements that all the writing on their blogs is theirs and other people must get permission before using it. I've thought about posting a similar message on my blog, but I don't want people to think that I think they're going to take my writing. At the same time, though, I am protective of my writing, even if I haven't been published yet. My writing and my ideas come from my mind, my imagination, and I don't think it's a bad thing to want credit for the stuff that I come up with.

If someone actually did take my writing, I'm not sure what I'd do. Maybe I could send out a curse that would give that person writer's block for the rest of his/her life, or better yet, maybe I'd curse that person to write nothing but cliches. Or I could make a little writer voodoo doll and stick pens in it, but I don't think that would work.

On the other hand, maybe I'm not thinking about this in the right way, if there is a right way of thinking about it. I think I accidentally swallowed a small piece of the aluminum foil that I heated some frozen pizza on yesterday, so I feel like it might have affected my brain.


  1. it's an interesting thing to think about.

    my former blog i wrote anonymously, and occasionally i would find my blog posts on other blogs or forums, but they always linked back to my blog, or gave me credit - so no one was claiming my words were theirs.

    i guess what i put out there - for free - in the blogosphere has the possibility of being stolen (not that i think that many people are going to steal my post about a-ha). but words that i put in my manuscript, those are sacred to me. if someone were to take those, i'd have to take them out!

  2. I have a message like that at the bottom of my blog, but who knows if anyone sees it or honors it. Who knows if anyone wants anything from my blog.

    In What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell he has a chapter about someone who borrowed from him and someone else for a play that did well... until it came out that big chunks were "borrowed" and it ruined her reputation. You should read it. I'd love to know what you think.

  3. In some of the sessions I've done with literary agents, they've all told me that you can't copyright ideas but you can copyright writing - makes sense. I think in this day and age we have to be careful about what we post up on websites, but not too paranoid that it inhibits sharing, etc. It's a tough one because who knows where exactly to draw the line?

  4. Interesting post. First, I am glad you contacted the other writer about your lemon line (which good by the way). It bugged you and you did something about.

    I am like you though in that I am not totally sure about putting up a copyright thing on my blog. I suppose it can't hurt but what does it even mean? Would it even protect me if I needed it to? Will a situation where I need protection - real protection - ever arise?

  5. Hi mi,
    I don't mind either if people link to my blog, because that means more people might read it. But I agree with you about your words being sacred, because I feel the same way.

    Hi Theresa,
    I doubt if anyone would want anything from my blog either, but sometimes I'll write a line that I think might be good to include in one of my stories.
    I'm definitely going to put that book you recommended on my reading list. I must confess, though, that my dissertation director gave me a list of about twenty books to read (and that was just to get me started), and I've only read about two of them so far.

    Hi Talli,
    I think it does make sense that you can't copyright ideas, because several people could take the same idea and write a bunch of different stories about it. And it's fun to read them because it's a good way of finding out how different people would react to the same situation or problem.

    Hi Rebecca,
    I contacted the other blogger at the suggestion of my friend maybeimamazed02, because at first I wasn't sure whether I should. I'm not sure either what kind of protection would be provided by putting up a copyright thing. I mean, obviously no one who's following my blog would do it, because they're all really cool and anyway I'm already reading their blogs and would find out. But what I was paranoid about was if some random person were to find something they liked and then use it, I'd never know. And then what if I published a revised version of something I blogged about, but then it was already published by the plagiarist and I got accused of plagiarizing the plagiarist? I don't know if that makes sense. Half of my obsessions don't, usually.

  6. People have the ability to steal lines from us, even passages. But can they reproduce your voice, your spirit, your view of life?

    If they can, then they are talented enough not to need to steal from you.

    Yet, I've written several haiku's of which I'm proud. I just wrote a short poem {Tennyson need not worry about his place in history} for my blog post of today. If any of them were stolen and someone else claimed them, I would not be happy.

    Your lines. My lines. They a bit of our souls. I can hear Spenser say, "It is what it is, Roland. People steal. Deal with it."

  7. Hi Roland,
    You raised several good points, especially the part about how our lines are "a bit of our souls". I think that's true, which is why it would be really painful if someone were to steal those lines.

    But on the other hand, I've found that several plagiarists actually are pretty talented and that they don't need to steal anyone's writing; they just choose to do so anyway.

  8. You had a nice, civilized exchange between the lemon line you came up with & the person who wanted to use it.

    Unfortunately, when someone does steal your work you should go after them. A few years ago someone stole an article I wrote in its entirety! All he did was remove my name. I sent him emails and faxes telling him to remove the article. He eventually complied. Please note that this was an article, not a line, & I had proof that I wrote it.

    As for stealing lines and paragraphs from other writers, it does happen & will continue to happen. Just a sad fact of life online and offline!

  9. Hi, notesfromnadir,
    I can't believe someone stole your entire article! How did you find out? You'd think people would know better, especially because the Internet makes it really easy to find out anything about just about everything.